An English toolmaker named Joseph Hudson invented the first whistle used in a soccer match in 1878, and created a whistle for Scotland Yard that could be easily heard over a mile’s distance. Although the piercing noise of a police whistle has is no longer heard on Britain’s streets, the blowing of a whistle continues in sports. The term “whistleblower” has been used in journalism and politics since the 1960s but the tradition of whistleblowing dates back to the founding of our country.
On February 19, 1777, aboard the warship Warren, which was anchored outside of Providence, R.I., ten American sailors and marines serving in the war met in secret to discuss something they had witnessed. Richard Marven, a Revolutionary War naval officer, and Samuel Shaw midshipman reported that Commodore Esek Hopkins, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy tortured British prisoners of war aboard the USS Warren.
“Much Respected Gentlemen: “We who present this petition engaged on board the ship ‘Warren’ with an earnest desire and fixed expectation of doing our country some service . . . We are ready to hazard every thing that is dear & if necessary, sacrifice our lives for the welfare of our country, we are desirous of being active in the defense of our constitutional liberties and privileges against the unjust cruel claims of tyranny & oppression; but as things are now circumstanced onboard this frigate, there seems to be no prospect of our being serviceable in our present situation. . . . . We are personally well acquainted with the real character & conduct of our commander, commodore Hopkins & we take this method not having a more convenient opportunity of sincerely & humbly petitioning, the honorable Marine Committee that they would inquire into his character & conduct, for we suppose that his character is such & that he has been guilty of such crimes as render him quite unfit for the public department he now occupies, which crimes, we the subscribers can sufficiently attest.”
Captain John Grannis testified to the Continental Congress about Hopkins that “His conversation is at times so wild and orders so unsteady that I have sometimes thought he was not in his senses.” When Hopkins was dismissed from the Continental Navy, he filed a criminal libel suit against Marven and Shaw in the Rhode Island courts.
Only seven months after signing the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress unanimously enacted the nation’s first whistleblower protection law, declaring it the duty of “all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other the inhabitants thereof” to inform the Continental Congress or proper authorities of “misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”
The 1863 United States False Claims Act was adopted to combat fraud by suppliers of the United States government during the American Civil War. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 was enacted to protect federal employees who disclosed government waste, fraud or an abuse of power. The Lloyd–La Follette Act of 1912 guaranteed the right of federal employees to furnish information to the United States Congress.
The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 extended protection to federal employees in the intelligence community and others with security clearance.
Whistleblowers have historically considered to be patriots, except by the accused and their supporters. When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times, he was charged with conspiracy under the Espionage Act of 1917. The case was eventually dismissed due to governmental misconduct and illegal evidence-gathering. Former FBI deputy director William Mark Felt waited 30 years when he confirmed in 2005 that he was “Deep Throat,” the anonymous government source who helped take down President Nixon in the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s vice-president Spiro Agnew had already resigned after the U.S. attorney in Maryland charged him with tax avoidance and receiving illegal campaign contributions.
- Stanger, Allison: “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump”
- Time Magazine, “History of Whistleblowers”
- ACME Whistles